The commercial drone industry is starting to take off with Part 107 making it easier for businesses to fly, but some are still struggling to take flight. As more people become interested in using drones, drone flight services are emerging, but they have to figure out how to turn their companies into viable businesses.
Drone flight services are businesses that provide customers with drone equipment and operators to help them get a specific job done, whether it’s videography, mapping, crop spraying and more. “The definition of a drone flight service company in short is anyone who is flying a UAV for remote sensing and videography purposes,” said Eric Harkins, CEO of Back Forty Aerial Solutions, an aerial solution provider.
The problem with drone flight services today is that the industry is so broad right now, drone service companies are still trying to find a niche that they fit into, according to Harkins. Some service companies are focusing on training operators, others are interested in selling hardware, and then there are those who want to process or provide data, he explained.
“The drone market is still trying to find its way, articulating clear business values in each industry and learning how to reach the marketplace,” said Jon Tull, founder and president of Dronifi, a drone flight service solution provider. “Past all the hype, this industry is still very new. I see a lot of energy out there, companies striving to build a business. They’ll get it.”
In order to be successful, Harkins explains service companies need to ensure they are being compliant with regulations, understand the full capabilities of what their equipment can do, and integrate with other services and manufacturers. He said just because a drone is more expensive doesn’t mean it provides better features and functionality than cheaper drones.
According to Kerry Sterk, president of 901 Drones (an aerial imagery and data analysis provider), flight service companies also need to be able to provide well-trained operators and maintenance staff that can ensure the safety of their operators.
“Drone service providers will need to establish and maintain safety, best practice procedures and quality standards above and beyond the FAA’s UAS regulations to receive an even broader industry acceptance of this new technology,” she said.
Up until now, legislation has been one of the biggest hurdles for these services to overcome. “The ban of commercial drone activity for the last couple years has certainly put a damper on progress,” said Coy Sacco, owner of Skytek, a drone service company.
Now that Part 107 is opening the skies for commercial drone use, the problem drone services will face is being able to provide value to customers, according to Sacco. “The industry is young, and there are still some rough edges at the customer endpoint. The value is there to be gained, but it’s not always so obvious yet. There is often a slight disconnect between what service companies think they should provide and what customers really need. The disconnect isn’t huge, but there is a lot of work for a service provider to do in order to meet a customer’s real needs,” he said.
To provide value, Sacco said service companies need more than equipment and sensors; they need to provide good customer service and make partnerships with other software companies who can help them take the data they collect and turn them into action-trackable insights.
“[It] takes more than just pretty pictures to create a viable business,” he said. “It takes a suite of tools tailored to the end user. In the same way that ITS Service companies will use tools and platforms such as Windows, Kasaya, ConnectWise, drone service companies have to think about providing complete packaged solutions to businesses wanting to utilize this tech.”
The ability to provide technology, skill and experience will improve the professional quality of data, Sacco explained. “[No] one knows what’s needed better than the ones interacting with customers in the field. The drone hardware and software developers that create tools for those service companies will gain insights from them to continue to refine their products,” Sacco said.
Businesses typically fail when they are unable to satisfy all their customers’ drone reality needs, and when they haven’t teamed up with larger companies who can help fill their missing gaps, according to 901 Drones’ Sterk.
In addition, she believed that in order for drone flight service businesses to be successful, companies should set up a small business operation within an office as opposed to operating out of their garage or house; be able to demonstrate their equipment and services; provide more than just flying services; and help educate the community about the value of drones in today’s economy.
Back Forty’s Harkins hoped in the future there will be the formation of an operator's alliance where operators can have a voice in legislation and the implementation of the technology. “We all realize we are ambassadors of a technology that might scare a lot of people, but it has the potential to do a lot of good,” he said.